A little bit of sanity has returned to the GOP presidential field, with the latest polls from Iowa indicating that quasi-frontrunner Newt Gingrich has fallen back. Yet, Gingrich has been replaced by yet another shock frontrunner: Ron Paul is now on track to win the Iowa caucuses.
In the latest poll from Public Policy Polling, Paul has moved to the top of the field with 23 percent support. Mitt Romney jumped up to second place with 20 percent, while Gingrich is down in third with 14 percent. Two weeks ago, PPP's numbers put Gingrich clearly atop the field with 27 percent, but that level took a slight dip to 22 percent last week before bottoming out in the latest numbers. It's easy to dismiss Paul's jump to the top as yet another mini-surge that will fall back before the actual vote, but I wouldn't be so sure. Unlike Gingrich, Paul has actually built an Iowa infrastructure, and voters in the state are very familiar with his policy positions because he has traveled to Iowa more frequently than any other major candidate this year.
Even before the latest batch of poll numbers leaked out Sunday night, there was noticeable fear among many Republicans here that the value of future caucuses would be diminished if Paul wins. After Huckabee's '08 victory stalled nationally, these GOPers fear that the next caucuses would be ignored should Iowans elevate another candidate with slim national possibilities. "I think Ron Paul and Mitt Romney could hurt the state of Iowa and our caucus process," says Natalie Ginty, a senior at the University of Iowa who is State Chair of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans and a Gingrich supporter. "You can't choose Mike Huckabee one time and choose Ron Paul…He's going to win Iowa and then he's not going to get the nomination. It really only helps Mitt Romney."
The concern has worked its way down to normal Republican voters as well. "One of my biggest fears is that Ron Paul will run as a third-party, and if that happens—if anybody runs a third-party like that—I'm afraid that's going to ensure Obama gets reelected and we can't have that," says Kirk Sampson, an insurance agent I met before a Rick Perry event in Storm Lake last week. Sampson—who voted for Fred Thompson in 2008—is leaning toward Perry, though he is still weighing Gingrich and Santorum as well. But like many traditional GOP voters, he finds points of Paul's economic policy appealing, but is terrified of the Texans take on foreign policy. "I'm glad the Fox News [debate moderators] asked questions that brought out what a total loon Paul is as foreign policy goes."
While it's clear that Paul's ideology would serve as a major break from the views typically associated with Iowa conservatives, it's hard to see why Paul's victory steals Iowa's thunder for future elections. For one thing, Paul is the only candidate who has invested the time and resources into building a ground operation for the state. If he does finish atop the polls on Jan. 3, it will be a clear signal to future candidates that they cannot ignore the bread and butter politicking that rural Iowans have become accustomed to over the past 40 years.
Thanks to a 2016 Democratic primary—no matter the outcome of the general election—it's hard to see Iowa and New Hampshire lose their value unless a major push develops to reformat the primary calendar. Unlike the Republican side of the voting ledger, Iowa has proved remarkably consequential for Democratic presidential hopefuls; the winner of the caucuses went on to gain the party's nomination all but twice since 1976, and one of those exceptions was 1992 when hometown favorite Senator Tom Harkin ran and no one else contested Iowa. The next batch of Democratic hopefuls will flock to the state starting in 2015, bringing the media alongside them. If there's a contested primary on the Republican side, it's hard to see the candidates not following along, even if 2012 establishes that Iowa GOP voters are kooky and unpredictable.